If vocabulary and grammar are the meat and bones of a language, then proverbs are its blood. Not only are these short, pithy, well-known expressions great for giving warnings and advice or for expressing simple truths about life, they also tell you a lot about the cultural context of the language. Each and every language has hundreds of such sayings, but as English is the language at hand, here are 35 common English proverbs for you to enjoy, learn – and hopefully use. Next time you get the chance to throw one into conversation, make sure you strike while the iron is hot!
Here are 35 common English proverbs:
Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face – Don’t do something in anger to harm someone that might end up harming yourself.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease – The person who speaks up to complain about something is the one who gets his or her way.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat – There are usually several ways to solve a problem. Poor old cats, they don’t have much fun in proverbs. Even when they’re not being skinned, you can say when the cats away, the mice will play, which means that when a person in authority, such as teacher or a boss, is absent, people will not do what they are supposed to do. Even leopards come off badly. After all, a leopard cannot change his spots. This is usually said about someone with undesirable qualities, and means that people cannot change their nature.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder – We feel even more affection for our loved ones when we are parted from them. On the other hand, familiarity breeds contempt, which means that if you spend too much time with a person, you begin to hate that person.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link – If a part of something (or a person in a team) is weak, then the whole thing (or team) is weak.
A fool and his money are easily parted – It is easy to get money from stupid people (either by persuasion or deceit).
Beggars can’t be choosers – When you don’t have any options you have to take the one thing that’s on offer, no matter how undesirable it may be.
Strike while the iron is hot – Make the most of an opportunity while you can before it’s too late. Make hay while the sun shines means the same thing. Carpe diem!
Hunger is the best sauce – The taste of your food doesn’t matter when you’re really hungry.
The devil finds work for idle hands – People are more likely to get up to mischief when they are bored or have nothing to do.
Birds of a feather flock together – People of similar personality, background, taste or opinion tend to congregate or form groups of friends. Birds also turn up in the proverb a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, which is said to remind someone that what they have is worth more than what they don’t have.
You can lead a horse to water (but you cannot make him drink) – You can give advice to somebody but you cannot make them take it.
Well begun is half done – Beginning an endeavour well makes it much easier to finish the rest successfully. At the same time you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs – To achieve success in something you have to make decisions that might harm or upset some people.
Every cloud has a silver lining – There is something good to be found in every situation.
A watched kettle/pot never boils – If you concentrate on something you are waiting to happen, it will seem to take forever to happen. Pots and kettles also make an appearance in the expression the pot calling the kettle black, which describes the hypocrisy of a person criticising another for a fault that he or she shares.
One swallow does not make a summer – Just because one good thing has happened doesn’t mean that a situation is going to improve.
Rome wasn’t built in a day – It takes a long time to achieve something great or create something impressive. At the same time, you there are many routes you can take to achieve the same goal, which is why all roads lead to Rome. And when you get to your destination, make sure that when in Rome (or wherever you end up) you do as the Romans do and follow local custom.
The grass is always greener (on the other side of the fence/hill) – Other people always seem to be in a better situation than you (whether they actually are or not). This is said to remind someone to focus on the good aspects of their situation and not be envious of the situation of others.
A little learning is a dangerous thing – Sometimes it is better to be completely ignorant about something than to have a misguided and dangerous opinion based on incomplete understanding.
Nothing is certain (in life) but death and taxes – Like death, taxes are impossible to avoid.
The pen is mightier than the sword – You can influence people more easily with words than you can with violence. Perhaps these days it would make more sense to talk of ‘the keyboard’ rather than ‘the pen’.
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you – Don’t do something to harm someone who is helping you.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – People have different opinions about what is attractive.
You reap what you sow – This proverb, which comes from farming, reminds us that we eventually face the consequences of our actions, be they good or bad.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy – People who do nothing but work become boring. The proverbial Jack also makes an appearance in the expression Jack of all trades, master of none, which describes a person who is good at many things but does not excel at any of them.
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